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Don’t expect normal MBTA service for weeks

Full service won’t come back until the state reaches phase three of the virus-reduction goals issued by the governor Monday.

Keolis employee Rachid Benbari disinfected a commuter rail train at the Keolis maintenance facility on Monday.
Keolis employee Rachid Benbari disinfected a commuter rail train at the Keolis maintenance facility on Monday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The MBTA will continue to run at lower service levels over the next few weeks as the Massachusetts economy reopens, ramping up slowly and not hitting normal service until the state hits phase three of the recovery plan released Monday by Governor Charlie Baker.

But the administration left many questions unanswered about future transit operations, disappointing advocates and business leaders who are clamoring for more detail.

During the first reopening phase, the transit system will continue to run the same Saturday-level service it has operated since mid-March. More trips will be added during the second phase, with only the Blue Line back at a full schedule. Other lines will resume normal weekday service in phase three, which is at least six weeks away if the state hits the virus-reduction goals set out by Baker.

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The reopening plan also says riders will be required to wear masks onboard, while companies should allow and encourage many employees to work from home and stagger work hours to spread crowds across rush hour.

“We cannot significantly reduce the risk of transmission across the system without the cooperation of customers and the employer community,” Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said.

The plan did not include information on other protocols, such as how many riders will be allowed on each vehicle, or whether commuters will be required to position themselves in queues on platforms.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce said the state must still provide more detail “to help riders plan for impacts.” And Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy organization TransitMatters, wondered if the service levels should be boosted sooner, noting that some buses have occasionally been crowded during the stay-at-home advisory.

“We need to be providing more service for the people who are riding it today,” Johnson said. “There are all kinds of questions around transit that haven’t been answered."

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The MBTA had already outlined a plan to return to normal service while expecting ridership to remain low for months on end — the effect of continued work-from-home policies and public wariness of transit. The goal is to still provide transit, but minimize crowding and reduce the risk of the virus flaring up again. The agency has enough money through federal grants to run full service during the upcoming fiscal year.

At least to start, however, service levels will remain low before building back up.

The MBTA will boost service slowly as the state begins to reopen.
The MBTA will boost service slowly as the state begins to reopen.State of Massachusetts

Asked why service will not increase more quickly, Baker said “it’s mostly a function of just making sure we get it right.”

MBTA leaders have previously said lower service levels are in part meant to reduce demand from riders and limit the number of trips drivers must make.

Since March, ridership has been down about 90 percent on the subway, though it has decreased by a slightly lower rate on the Blue Line, which would be the first to return to normal service. Bus ridership has also dipped significantly, but not as much as the subway, with differences from route to route.

The ferry system, which closed in March, would reopen with reduced service in phase two and return to normal in phase three. Eventually, bus service may be added beyond even regular levels, while commuter rail schedules might be modified to fit ridership trends.

The MBTA has said it could add service with a fleet of 60 new buses expected later this year, or if cities set aside space for bus-only lanes. Bus lanes would allow quicker trips, so individual buses and drivers could be put to greater use.

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The chamber of commerce called on the T to develop a staffing plan to ensure enough drivers are available as service increases. The governor’s report mentioned driver availability as a potential issue, as dozens of MBTA operators have tested positive for coronavirus this spring.

The state also said the T will continue increased cleaning procedures and communicate schedule adjustments on social media. But the reopening plan otherwise offered very few specifics about MBTA operations going forward.

Will bus riders still board through back doors, as they have since March, effectively making trips fare-free? Will there be markings or barriers to help riders keep their distance in stations and on vehicles? Will hand sanitizer be available on vehicles, or masks distributed to riders? Will the T develop ways to communicate crowding conditions to riders before they board? Baker’s plan offered no immediate answers.

Nor did it lay out specific target capacity limits. The business organization A Better City issued a report last week suggesting how many people can fit on each type of vehicle while maintaining 6 feet of social distance — 10 people per bus, for example, or 21 per Red Line car.

The MBTA did provide one update on a change to operations on Monday, saying on Twitter that it is designing and installing screens to separate bus drivers from riders.

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.